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Tech leaders are using their voices, influence to speak out on social, political issues

CEOs from Apple, Facebook and Salesforce are utilizing their power to offer their positions on everything from gay rights to immigration to vaccinations. And they're not the only ones.

Apple CEO Tim Cook is one of many tech leaders speaking out on social and political issues. Screenshot by Oscar Gutiérrez/CNET

"There's something very dangerous happening in states across the country."

That's the beginning of an op-ed by the head of the world's most valuable company, in one of the most influential newspapers in the US. Apple CEO Tim Cook, who seven months ago announced to the world he was gay, penned a nearly 600-word piece that ran in The Washington Post on March 29 and addressed discrimination against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered communities.

Cook isn't the only tech leader speaking out. Over the past year, some of the most powerful voices in the industry -- from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff -- have begun sharing their views on issues far outside their domain. They're talking about vaccinations, civil rights and the treatment of gays. They're also giving speeches at state capitals, and marching against police brutality.

Silicon Valley is flexing its social, political and economic muscle in ways that haven't been seen before. Top tech executives are discovering they can use their considerable influence to promote a cause and demand political reform. In the last week alone, tech leaders have threatened to cancel travel, reduce investment, relocate employees and remove millions of dollars from the economies of states passing laws they disagree with.

Cook spoke out against laws in more than two dozen states that threaten to "allow people to discriminate against their neighbors." He and more than 100 other tech executives from Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and Yelp have criticized laws in Indiana and Arkansas that were written to support "religious freedom" but that critics fear will encourage discrimination against the LGBT community.

Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff James Martin/CNET

Benioff, founder of Salesforce, a maker of sales and marketing software, led the tech industry's charge against Indiana and Arkansas and says a shift is occurring. He cites the amended changes to laws in those states as proof.

"This was a defining moment," Benioff told reporters Thursday after attending a meeting with potential presidential candidate Jeb Bush, who was in San Francisco for a fundraiser. "This was the turning point for people who have the power to be able to say, 'Let's use the power.'"

David Yoffie, a professor at the Harvard Business School, says part of the reason tech executives are more vocal is because their corporate cultures encourage outspokenness.

"Look at Cook and Benioff, it's hard to see anyone of comparable stature 10 to 20 years ago" doing the same thing, said Yoffie, who believes tech leaders will play a part in upcoming elections. "There will be many political questions and debates that are going to engage a number of socially active tech CEOs over the next 12 to 18 months."

Taking their place in the world

The tech industry had largely kept its opinions on social issues to itself. When executives wanted to speak out, they looked to Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, who left his job as CEO in 2000 and pledged his fortune to advocate on a myriad of issues, from reproductive rights to water conservation to the eradication of diseases like polio and malaria.

But that started to change about seven years ago, when Apple announced it opposed California's controversial Proposition 8 measure, which sought to eliminate same-sex marriage. The company, maker of the top-selling iPhone, donated $100,000 to the .

That activism appeared to progress further when President Barack Obama was invited to be the dinner guest at the home of noted venture capitalist John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers in 2011. He was surrounded by deep-pocketed Silicon Valley leaders, including then Apple CEO Steve Jobs, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, Cisco CEO John Chambers and Google Chairman Eric Schmidt. He returned the following year for another dinner.

Obama not only came to raise funds, but he also picked people's brains about job creation and education. He even tapped executives from Google to lead technology initiatives within his administration.

Facebook founder Zuckerberg, who gave $100 million to support schools in Newark, NJ, has become one of the tech industry's more outspoken leaders. Zuckerberg co-founded FWD.us, an advocacy group that gave him a platform to speak during the US immigration reform battle. He also became part of the contentious debate over health care when he recommended that members of his book club read about childhood vaccinations. "The science is completely clear: vaccinations work and are important for the health of everyone in our community," Zuckerberg posted on his Facebook page.

It's still not certain why this increased activism is happening. Some believe the current political climate in the US has been a factor, and Silicon Valley wants to have a major say.

"What we've seen is that the Silicon Valley companies that everyone can name are in the stage of corporate development where they're moving from the founder mentality and considering what their position is in the world," said Jo-Ellen Pozner, an assistant business professor at the University of California, Berkeley. "That's really a shift in mindset."

Pozner, whose research focuses on social movements, said this activism remains "issue specific," with the companies speaking out about matters that have a direct impact on their employees and community.

Of course, Silicon Valley has political and social issues of its own. In the past year, tech companies have been roundly criticized for gender and racial disparities. At least 11 companies, including Apple, Twitter, Facebook and Microsoft, released diversity reports showing they're largely run by white men. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella didn't help, when he said in October, at a conference celebrating women in tech, that women should rely on .

Nadella's gaffe ignited a wide discussion about the unconscious bias in tech, which was further dissected during the closely watched Ellen Pao gender discrimination trial. Pao sued her former employee, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, saying she didn't get a promotion because she was a woman. Pao lost her case last month.

Vivek Wadhwa, a fellow at Stanford University, said there are many other issues surrounding Silicon Valley, from homelessness to ill-equipped schools.

"Indiana, that's low-hanging fruit and too easy to do," he said. "I'm not going to do much cheering for anyone in Silicon Valley until they get their own house in order."

Still, tech industry watchers believe more executives will become politically and socially active. Max Levchin, a co-founder of PayPal and current CEO of finance startup Affirm, rounded up the 70 tech executives for the joint statement against the religious freedom laws. Levchin said many are eager to join the political cause du jour.

"Emails are still coming into my inbox from CEOs wanting to voice their support," Levchin said Thursday, after amended laws were passed in Indiana and Arkansas. "The emails ranged from 'Yes!' to 'Absolutely, what else can I do to help?' to 'I saw the statement, why didn't you ask me?! Of course I stand with you!'"

Updated at 10:22 a.m. PT Monday to show that more than 100 tech execs have now expressed opposition to so-called religious freedom laws.

CNET Reporter Ben Fox Rubin contributed to this report.